It’s not all bad: What we learned about healthcare in 2020

By:

Dec 17, 2020

The year is almost over, and what a whirlwind of a year it was. This time last year, no one expected 2020 to be filled with toilet paper shortages or family gatherings via Zoom. Yet here we are, nine months later, adjusting to a new world and hoping the vaccinations will be distributed soon. 

As we look back on the year, it’s impossible to ignore the toll COVID-19 took on the healthcare industry. But the pandemic also highlighted several important lessons to bring into the new year and beyond. Here are just some of the takeaways from 2020 that have the potential to inspire lasting transformation in US healthcare:

1. Telehealth offers more promise than concern

While telehealth programs have been around for a while, the pandemic provided an opportunity to truly test their merit as patients remained at home and some hospitals and doctors’ offices closed their doors to non-emergency care. 

Despite concerns about privacy, efficacy, and insurance coverage, telehealth hit its stride amidst the pandemic, and patient satisfaction in telehealth skyrocketed. J.D. Power found that telehealth services received one of the highest patient satisfaction scores of any health service they’ve surveyed. It turns out that many concerns about telehealth were either solved for, such as temporary policy changes supporting telehealth reimbursement, or found to be moot. Furthermore, its use in specialty care highlights telemedicine’s ability to address more complex issues than just primary care visits.

Looking forward, 2021 may be the year to address the last remaining barriers to telehealth use. Over the course of this year, we’ve suggested that making new telehealth-friendly policy changes permanent will not only change the future landscape of healthcare delivery, but also drastically expand healthcare access for those in need. 

2. Providers need to finally address socioeconomic conditions in health status 

This year revealed, in glaring detail, the importance of implementing socioeconomic interventions as an integral part of patients’ health. The social determinants of health describe how the socioeconomic and environmental conditions in which we live determine one’s health status, and they’re being examined in a harsh new light. 

COVID-related lockdowns led to widespread reports of job loss, with only one relief check sent to individuals back in April. Like other social determinants, long-term joblessness, homelessness, and food insecurity contribute to a wide number of illnesses and health complications. This became increasingly clear this year as poor housing conditions were shown to be correlated with increased risk of COVID infection. Some people were forced to choose between working in-person or losing their only source of income—resulting in either higher likelihood of infection, or starvation and homelessness. 

A strong spotlight on racism also brought these issues into a harsher light in 2020. Structural racism impacts access to a number of social supports and needs, and negatively affects interactions with existing social services. Both within and outside of the pandemic’s context, racial minorities face poorer health outcomes and less support to address them. 

Healthcare providers need to seriously consider how integrating social needs into care delivery will improve patient health. Primary care providers are particularly well-suited to integrating community needs into their practices; centers such as Oak Street Health show how doctors’ offices can act as community hubs as well. 

3. The pandemic revealed a number of problems with how hospitals operate

Over the course of the year, healthcare workers have proven time and time again that they go above and beyond for patients, and hospitals have done the best that they can in the face of an unprecedented health crisis. But hospitals have also faced structural challenges that make it impossibly difficult to provide quality care while also keeping hospital doors open, illuminating vulnerabilities that were there long before the pandemic.

The forced delay of elective procedures caused hospitals to lose revenue, and staffing shortages called retired doctors back to work. These issues, brought into the spotlight during COVID, have always existed: the way hospitals make profits forces them to offer as many services as possible to the detriment of health outcomes, contributing to provider burnout and ultimately staffing shortages. 

We’ve posted before about the need to disentangle the myriad services offered in hospitals into a model that enhances productivity and reduces costs. We’ve also written about how to turn widespread layoffs into job training to increase capacity, instead of leaning solely on specialized medical providers. These changes are just a few examples of the types of improvements that can greatly benefit both providers and patients alike.  

As 2021 looms on the horizon, many people fear that it’ll just be a repeat of 2020. But 2021 also brings with it the possibility of new beginnings, changes, and improvements. I’m hopeful that the healthcare industry can learn from what has been an incredibly challenging year, and channel its energy towards building a system that works both during and outside of the pandemic.

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.